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EASTERN PROMISES(director: David Cronenberg; screenwriter: Steve Knight; cinematographer: Peter Suschitzky; editor: Ronald Sanders; music: Howard Shore; cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill), Naomi Watts (Anna), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan), Mina E. Mina (Azim), Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse (Tatiana), Josef Altin (Ekrem); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Paul Webster/Robert Lantos; Focus Features; 2007)
“Devilishly intelligent.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg (“The Dead Zone”/”Rabid”/”Naked Lunch”), one of the world’s best, teams up again with History of Violence star Viggo Mortensen for this devilishly intelligent and most entertaining followup film that’s also a crime thriller. This one comes with a dazzling Oedipal story and a layered subtext into the psyche of a complex gangster; more insights into the director’s usual themes of body-horror, human misery and what it means to be normal; and is filled with plenty of graphic violence. The gore is never gratuitous and looks more real and feels more ugly than the violence in Scorsese’s Departed, that only seemed cartoonish.

The rain-slicked London-set tale of the Russian Mafia émigrés takes place during Christmas (as hard as it might be to swallow, it’s a Christmas story about a mysterious redeemer who brings about in a time of darkness what can be taken for a miracle–the saving of a child hunted down by a powerful tyrant). It zeroes in on two opposing families of Russian expatriates who came to the West for a better life: one family is a wealthy criminal one and the other a law abiding one of regular folks looking to fit into English society. Steve Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) is the screenwriter, who weaves together a fascinating moralistic story that is miles removed from The Godfather and yet doesn’t miss a beat on what it takes to be a Mafia soldier.

It opens in a startling fashion with an eye-opening gangland slaying in a Russian barbershop, as Azim gets his frightened semi-retarded teenager son to slit the throat of his customer with a barber’s razor. Next we have a 14-year-old prostitute named Tatiana dying during childbirth in a North London hospital and the half-Russian midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), steals her diary. She wants to know something about the needle-scarred druggie victim and obsessively wants the surviving baby girl she named Christina to be sent to relatives rather than to become a ward of the state (in reality she wants the child herself). Anna’s gruff Uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski, Polish director) is asked to translate the diary but gets Anna miffed when he questions her motives and responds by saying “Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?” He also upsets her greatly as he makes racial slurs over Anna’s former black doctor live-in boyfriend, and the fact that she lost a baby through a miscarriage.

When Anna finds a business card of the Trans-Siberian restaurant in the diary, she assumes the girl once worked there and visits the posh place. The innocent outsider, Anna, discovers too late that the grandfatherly chef owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) she asks to translate the diary is a monstrous local chapter leader of the Vory V Zakone (thieves in law), using the restaurant as the gang’s headquarters for many illegal enterprises, whose flagship operation is a Russian Mafia styled prostitution slavery racket where Tatiana was one of the girls held in bondage. The gang was started in Stalin’s Gulags and show their history by the tattoos the members have on their bodies. Anna’s English mom (Sinead Cusack) wisely notes after meeting the square-jawed chauffeur/cleaner thug who works for Semyon, an imposing figure of a man named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), that “This isn’t our world—we are ordinary people.” But Anna can’t forget the baby she so desperately wants to save and finds herself having to trust the chauffeur to get the name of the Russian village the girl was from in order to locate her relatives. The guileless nurse is excited sexually over the chauffeur and also has a growing curiosity about his gangster world (a fascination that movie viewers also have, which is why there are so many crime thrillers).

Semyon’s good-for-nothing violent, loose-cannon, bossy, insecure and drunken son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) is Nikolai’s boss. They get drunk together, Nikolai follows all Kirill’s orders and they live in a homoerotic gangster environment (another subtext of the film). The moody piece has many brilliantly conceived set-pieces that include a corpse in a freezer being thawed out by a hair dryer to have his fingers cut off and teeth removed only to then be tossed into the Thames, the displaying of Nikolai’s many prison tattoos on his naked body, Nikolai’s becoming a made man for the Russian Mafia by getting a notable star tattoo over his heart as he tells the crime family bosses “I am already dead. I died when I was 15. Now I live in the Zone all the time,” and a centerpiece action scene of an amazingly stretched out bloody knife fight to the death in a steamy public bathhouse (this one is memorable and will be part of cinema lore).

One can’t heap enough praise on all the great performances, where Watts’ very good one as a caring person is overshadowed by the great one by Armin Mueller-Stahl as a double-crossing heartless villain you love to hiss at (like in those old B films) and the even more bedazzling one by the energetic and captivating misfit Cassel. But the tour-de-force performance is by a strutting and sinister Mortensen, who is the man from hell on a dubious mission where he can either be an avenging angel or a charismatic devil. His tough but quiet performance, where he convincingly speaks a fluent Russian, is menacing even when he talks softly, and ultimately leaves us not sure whether to cheer or not for this divided character. Not that it would matter to someone as far gone as that, who has checked out of doing what so-called normal people do. This tale, by so masterfully getting under your skin, delivers the goods it promises without becoming formulaic or settling for familiar crime story answers. It’s a film to savor.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”